Assassin's Creed Valhalla

After playing through the original Assassin’s Creed, I decided the whole series just wasn’t for me. It was a clunky, repetitive slog of a game that, even in its late stages, never really grows beyond its admittedly interesting early premise.

I did finish the game, but begrudgingly so. See, I had just started working as a games journalist in 2010, and I made it a point to play through a lot of the most important games that I had overlooked in the prior decade. I found some absolute masterpieces, such as Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker during that period of my life. It was a time of magic and discovery. Yet, I also decided that I owed it to myself to complete Assassin’s Creed, which left a sour taste in my mouth that’s lasted nearly a decade.

Ten years later, here I am, falling absolutely in love with an Assassin’s Creed game. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about Assassin’s Creed. In that reconsideration, I’ve sparked a new interest in the series, and I’m finding myself compelled to start working through the long, long history Ubisoft’s open-world series has left in its wake.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

The thing about 2020 is that a lot of us are finding ourselves with more time, and with more encouragement to stay indoors than usual (both resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic). That means, for me personally (though I’m sure I’m not alone in this), my gaming time swung toward games that offer more than a hundred hours of entertainment rather than the short, quaint experiences that I otherwise normally enjoy.

And Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a behemoth.

At the time of this writing, I’ve invested about 70 hours into the game. I’m maybe a third of the way through the story, and I haven’t even seen the whole England map yet. In fact, I only traveled to Jotunheim one time so far (and saw I was underleveled so I scooted back to England), and I’ve not been to Vinland at all yet.

For those who, like me, like to simply wander around and look at things for hours at a time, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla offers an enormous playground for these wanderings.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

But it’s not just wide; this world has depth. From the songs your crew sings aboard your longship to the rich sense of history you get from seeing all these medieval European villages built in the midst of toppling Roman ruins, Valhalla never feels like it’s spread too thinly across its giant map (“like butter scraped over too much bread,” as Bilbo Baggins once said).

It’s also gorgeous. And I mean gorgeous gorgeous. This game offers some serious eye candy for landscape enthusiasts. The autumnal look of Northern England is especially pretty. At times, it’s almost a shame to spatter these beautiful landscapes with the blood of your enemies, but hey, the Viking lifestyle ain’t just about picking flowers and collecting leaves.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Sure, there’s a bit of bloat here. There are perhaps a few too many treasure chests in seemingly impossible-to-reach locations (though, through sheer persistence, you’ll always find a solution). As satisfying as it is to be constantly upgrading your gear, it also can be tedious in a way that discourages you from trying new gear once you’ve decked yourself out in a fully upgraded set (though there are tricks for making this easier). The page-chasing minigames are often dreadful exercises in frustration and futility, revealing weak spots in the game’s controls that I don’t think I would have even noticed otherwise. (As someone who’s not a seasoned Assassin’s Creed veteran, I hear that these have been a source of ire for quite some time.)

Speaking of minigames, though, Orlog (the dice game) is actually really, really fun. It’s no Gwent, that’s for certain, but it has a really interesting premise and that easy-to-learn-yet-hard-to-master appeal that so many similar minigames fail to achieve.

But even in its weakest places, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla remains engrossing from start to middle. I was going to say from start to finish, but I haven’t finished it yet so that would have been disingenuous. I suspect this is the case, but I can’t be sure until I experience the conclusion for myself. And considering my tendency to wander off the beaten path and simply explore and look for collectibles for five hours at a time, I don’t know that I will finish the story in 2020. What I’ve witnessed of this story, though, has been really, really good.

As someone who’s had an unrelenting bitterness toward the Assassin’s Creed franchise for a decade, I have to admit that Valhalla won me over completely. When I step away from it for too long, it beckons me back to it, and when I heed the call, I find myself spending countless hours in its richly fascinating medieval world.

I played a lot of games in 2020, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is among the best of this year’s offerings.

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